September 27, 2014
By Veena Trehan
The rapid push to war leaves our heads spinning from the shifting narratives and alliances and our minds worrying about the violence that resulted from regional intervention. It's time to acknowledge our past mistakes and the complexity of the situation and pursue a path of diplomacy, de-militarization and humanitarian assistance.
The rapid push for war has further disoriented people reeling from decades of disastrous American interventions. Our heads spin as if from vertigo with the shifting alliances and narratives. Continuing Middle East violence puts us in the thrall of past trauma.
Four years ago, President Obama described Republicans as bad drivers who sought the keys to the car after driving it into the ditch. America's use of military weapons has resulted in more terrorists and millions of destitute, displaced, and dead civilians. The chaos, which has left many discombobulated and stressed, demonstrates why the US government's access to the military machine must be limited. As with an irresponsible teenager, exceptions could be made (for example, for a grounded adolescent's emergency trip to the hospital). But no such clarity or call to action exists. We don't know what we plan to do, with whom, where, or why.
"There is no military solution to the larger crisis in Iraq," President Barack Obama said a month ago. The eleven recaps below illustrate why we must abandon our military might. Instead, we should pursue a diplomatic, humanitarian and de-militarized approach.
- A particularly violent and illegal dozen years of war " -- Part of the reason the ISIL and anti-American propaganda works is due to brutal US acts that have escaped accountability. Top leaders have rarely been punished for illegal, inhumane incidents. Among the many that have eroded America's military credibility: the lack of "weapons of mass destruction", the Iraq invasion, Abu Ghraib torture and prison abuse, the Bush torture memos, waterboarding, Guantanamo Bay detention camp, force feeding at Guantanamo, Penny Lane, the Blackwater massacre in Nisoor Square, international war crimes, extraordinary rendition, Special Operations disappearances and killings, Afghani night raids, the killing by allies of Reuters journalists, civilian and weddinggoer deaths from drone strikes, and chemical weapons use in Fallujah and elsewhere. One can ask, as Pope Francis does, if all war is madness. But even if not, who maintains confidence in a country whose recent wars were notable for their illegality and savagery?
- Some real surveys, please -- Seventy-one percent of Americans believe ISIS has terrorists in America, although there is no evidence for this. A majority favor airstrikes. Yet only 30 percent believed a week ago that President Obama had a "clear plan". Huh? Jon Stewart gives us some insight into the American mentality with more data: 65 percent support bombing Syria despite only half of all Americans being able to locate it on a map. "If I don't know where it is, it's probably not worth keeping," says Stewart in a lighthearted imitation of such an American. "If that country is so great, wouldn't I be able to point to it?" But seriously, let's move on from polling Americans who once supported the invasion and occupation of Iraq, an act that prompted the largest global protests in history. What is the level of popular support by those who will be impacted by our bombing and/or ISIS' retaliatory actions? What percent of Iraqi and Syrian citizens favor it? What do the global polls say? How about those in the Middle East?
- Who is helping whom? A year ago we were on the verge of airstrikes against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to support what we were told was an allied rebel force (never mind the two Al-Qaeda-linked groups). Now we're helping moderate rebels in a 3- or more- way battle for power. Who exactly are these deserving moderate rebels? The ones who sold off beheaded journalist Steve Sotloff to ISIS? The ones who beheaded several ISIS members prior to the US journalists' beheading? The ones, including the Free Syrian Army, who signed a ceasefire accord with ISIS while al-Assad is in power, and who have been losing resources to al Qaeda-linked al Nusra front? Why has our cry changed from "Assad must go"?As for Iraq: Did we not just back the government of eight-year Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki whose imprisonment, torture and execution of Sunnis has led to the growth of organizations like ISIS?
And Saudi Arabia: Why have we not taken significant steps against Saudi Arabia where a large amount of money - and some of the tens of billion in arms we've supplied to them - has gone to ISIS and the al Nusra front?
- What would the war/non-war look like? Somalia and Yemen are good analogs, according to the American president's speech last Wednesday. Trouble is that people from Newt Gingrich to Jeremy Scahill find the comparison uninspiring. In fact, we put murderous Somali warloards (who often used beheading) on the CIA payroll after 9-11. Yet at the time of 9-11, less than a dozen people were linked to al-Qaeda in the country. The brutal actions of these US-supported warlords resulted in a religious backlash in which the warlords lost power and the country became peaceful. Then the US backed an invasion by Ethiopia. Al-Shabab, who was responsible for the Kenyan mall killing, gained power as a result of US action. In Yemen our drone attacks have resulted in the killing of American citizens, wedding guests, and numerous civilians.
It is understandable that President Obama wants to demonstrate the feasibility of a limited counterterrorism strategy versus a larger counterinsurgency one (some commentators now call for a global, centuries-long war with ground forces). Yet there is little evidence of the viability of this strategy or relevant past successes.
- What of arms proliferation? -- As we remove chemical weapons from Syria, we learn that ISIS has a stockpile of American weaponry. How so? Since 2003, $25 billion was spent arming and training Iraq security forces and the army (celebrated, until recently, as one of the few US successes). Now ISIS has advanced through Iraq, taking over the weaponry. How much? "Hundreds of Humvees, pickup trucks, tanks and armored vehicles, as well as ammunition and artillery shells," according to AlterNet World Editor Alex Kane. In the past, we haven't been able to control and trace arms in the area either. A 2007 GAO report estimated close to 200,000 rifles and pistols provided to Iraq's army and national police could not be accounted for. The previous year the Defense Department's Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction put the number at nearly 500,000.
- Are the wars for the oil executives? In 1972, Iraq nationalized its oil sector, something that has been supported by Iraqis and oil union workers. In 2003, major oil executives formed an Energy Task Force which met with then Vice President Dick Cheney. A chapter from a report in 2003 entitled "Strengthening Global Alliances" calls the Middle East -- "central to world oil security" -- and encouraged support for foreign investment in the regional energy industry. Does our involvement in Iraq and Syria represent a new era of control and colonialism akin to the Sykes-Picot agreement which, a century ago, divided up the region for Western domination?
- Or are they for other corporations? The benefits are huge for oil execs eyeing the country with the second largest oil reserves, and another with a potential pipeline. But invasion and destruction can be a boon to more industries. Construction companies may receive large (and poorly overseen) contracts to rebuild the country: Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction Stuart Bowne conservatively estimated $8 billion of the $60 billion spent rebuilding Iraq was wasted outright. Also military companies search for markets for deadly machines and equipment that ideally would be rarely used (and is increasingly scrutinized when given to US localities). Other companies might gain access to markets or privatized sectors. Naomi Klein's "The Shock Doctrine" shows how natural or man-made disasters have been used to apply free-market ideologies. How do we know that profiteering companies are not driving the drumbeat to war?
- Because it doesn't seem like it's the 99 percent -- ISIS has not been shown to represents a direct, significant threat to Americans. Even were it so, how large would that threat be? An estimated 1 in 10 employed Americans between 35 and 44 are having their pay garnished to erase debts. Our country still struggles with unaffordable health care, drug overdoses, and finding funds to delay high school start times and process rape kits. A fraction of the billions or (or in the last case, $3 trillion) of war spending would be an unimaginable windfall for programs to help Americans, or to address climate change.
How is this an effective use of our resources?
"Every gun that is made, every warship that is launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed " This world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children. The cost of one modern heavy bomber is this: a modern brick school in more than 30 cities. It is two electric power plants, each serving a town of 60,000 population. It is two fine, fully equipped hospitals," said former Five Star General and Republican President Dwight D. Eisenhower in his "Chance for Peace" speech. "This is not a way of life at all, in any true sense. Under the cloud of threatening war, it is humanity hanging from a cross of iron."
- But our last foray into the area was successful, right? A quick review: Almost 1000 false statements were made by President George W. Bush and seven other top administration officials to sell the Iraq War. The plan was for us to be "greeted as liberators". Gen. Eric Shinseki's warning to the Senate Armed Services Committee that it would take hundreds of thousands of soldiers to secure the country was supposedly unrealistic. Two months after the invasion Bush celebrated "Mission Accomplished".
The costs have been enormous. An estimated 100,000 Iraqi civilians lost their lives in the first 18 months of the Iraq invasion due to airstrikes. The Iraqi death toll was estimated as 650,000 in October 2006, with an almost 4 million of the 25 million citizens becoming either internally displaced or refugees. The US equivalent -- scaled for population -- would be 8 million Americans dying and 30 million fleeing their homes. How receptive would our country be to military action in a scenario where the Iraqi and American roles were reversed? Notable also is decades of American actions that have intensified, not cooled the Israel-Palestine conflict. The recent New Yorker article on AIPAC shows how the group has pressured presidents and congressmen over decades to support counterproductive, incendiary actions.
- But the media will explain it to us " - The same talking heads who advocated the failed Iraq policy -- Sen. Lindsey Graham, former World Bank President Paul Wolfowitz, conservative commentator Bill Kristol, and who Jon Stewart calls the "band leader", Sen. John McCain -- were all over TV advocating the use of force months ago as Stewart pointed out in "Mess O'Potamia". And a new study shows many of the talking heads appearing recently have major ties to military corporations that benefit from a war, yet only rarely are these ties divulged by the news media.
- Is it deceptive to use the deaths of people who may not support such action as poster boys for war propaganda? Why were the family of the two slain journalists told they might face prosecution if they tried to raise ransom money? Jim Foley's mother describes the US government as viewing family attempts to free their son as "an annoyance" and said "some of our response to [ISIS] has only increased the hate". Five-time Oscar nominee Haskell Wexler, who worked with Jim Foley on an anti-NATO protest action by veterans, wrote in a Facebook post last week, "For the President to use Jim's name and other journalists as reason to pursue the stated military policy to 'degrade and destroy the Islamic State so that it is no longer a threat' is an insult to the memory of James Foley and to the intelligence of the American people." Barak Barfi, spokesperson for family of Steve Sotloff, reported that he was sold at the border by the "so-called moderate rebels that people want our administration to support".
We hear scary echoes of decades of Middle East intervention that has destabilized governments and supported bloodthirsty dictators, caused states to descend into civil war, and generated intense antipathy for the US.
Instead we should embrace the diplomacy cited by Barack Obama in his Nobel Peace Prize speech and many times since. There are other options to pursue peace and stability in the region. Institute for Policy Studies Fellow Phyllis Bennis recommends we stop airstrikes and remove the boots on the ground, which now top 1000 American personnel. To work towards resolution, she writes, we should engage Iran with whom nuclear talks are progressing, work with other countries to stop the arming and financing ISIS and other groups, push for UN-led negotiations to end Syria's civil war, and provide major humanitarian support.
Every day brings a new chance to support policies that will help the world. We must refrain from instinctively escalating violence but look to do the difficult diplomatic work of crafting policies which best serve that region; policies that, were they imposed on us, Americans would welcome wholeheartedly.
Veena Trehan is a DC-based journalist and activist. She has written for NPR, Reuters, Bloomberg News, and local papers.